When the Aids epidemic hit New York in the early 1980s, Bernárd Lynch did all he could to care for the sick and dying. The Ennis-born priest founded the first ministry for people with Aids in the city, supporting countless gay men who had been shunned by their families. He saw many of his friends succumb to the condition. Nobody knew the cause back then, and there was no such thing as treatment.
Lynch will never forget the terror of those early crisis years. “We used to go to patients in hospital and find their food had been left outside the door for days because staff were so afraid of contracting Aids. When you visited people, you dressed up like you were going on a moonwalk — covered from head to toe. You wouldn’t drink from the same cup or use the same toilet seat as anyone who had it.”
The ministry’s work was often more practical than spiritual. “I spent more time shopping, changing diapers and cleaning up urine than giving the last rites or praying with the sick,” says Lynch.
He had appealed for volunteers at St Francis Xavier Church in Greenwich Village after becoming overwhelmed with requests for help. The ministry grew to more than 1,000 members, but about half of them had died within a few years. Many were abandoned by their families when it was discovered they had Aids, while fellow priests who became ill were excluded by their diocese and religious communities.
Yet there were also moments of great tenderness. “I picked up one Irish mother at JFK whose son was in hospital. ‘How’s Michael?’ she asked, and I had to tell her he was quite ill. ‘He has the Rock Hudson disease,’ she said, referring to the actor who died of the condition in 1985, and I said, ‘Yes, he does’.”
“She found out he was gay about two weeks before he died, but she was formidable. I took the funeral and asked her if she’d like to say a few words. She went up to the altar in front of around 200 people — a woman who had never spoken in public before — and said: ‘Thank you. You were his real family.’ It was inspirational to see at a time when so many others had rejected their sons on their deathbeds.”
He is talking to the Independent after donating his personal papers to the National Library of Ireland. The Fr Bernárd Lynch Archive includes records of smear campaigns against him, personal letters to his family while he was coming out as a gay man, and letters from people struggling to reconcile their sexuality with church teaching.
What impact did his time in New York have on him? “Well, I was radicalised. I was devastated, but I had no time to cry — and no time to recover. Day after day, you were in and out of funeral homes and hospitals visiting the sick. And, of course, we all thought we had it. I went home in 1982 to tell my family about what was happening and to make a will for the first time in my life, because I genuinely thought my number was up.”
Lynch has struggled with his faith in the years since, but he stops short of describing himself as a non-believer. “Maybe I’m a coward, but I couldn’t have kept going if I didn’t hold on to something. Even today, it’s a hope more than a belief.”
There were no such doubts growing up in 1950s Ireland. Mass at Ennis Cathedral was, he says, like Broadway. “It was our theatre, to put it in secular terms. With the pre-Vatican II church, everything was in Latin and everything felt very dramatic. Men and boys went around in the fanciest of clothes, and I just found it extraordinary.”
But he also came to appreciate the spiritual aspects of religion. “I had an interest in things that were unexplainable, and things other than what we perceive. You know, the beauty of creation and all that.”
After seminary training and a stint in Zambia, Lynch was sent to New York in 1975 to pursue graduate studies. It was here that he finally came to terms with his sexuality.
He contacted Dignity, a Catholic LGBT group, but was nervous about getting involved. “When I first joined, I didn’t tell anyone I was a priest or even give my second name,” he says. He only became more disillusioned with Catholic authorities when the Aids crisis took hold. Church leaders expressed little sympathy with the dying, and a Vatican spokesman went as far as to suggest Aids was a punishment for immoral behaviour.
At the height of the epidemic, the Archdiocese of New York opposed the passing of legislation banning discrimination against gay people in employment and housing.
“People with Aids were being fired and thrown out of their homes,” Lynch recalls. “Cardinal John O’Connor of New York did everything in his power to stop that legislation and was succeeding. Council members were told they wouldn’t get the Catholic vote if they voted for the bill. People said to me that if I testified in favour, as a priest, a lot of these Catholic members would take courage. I went to City Hall and testified, and it did finally pass — although not for that reason alone.”
The Archdiocese of New York refused to renew his licence to minister as a priest. He approached other bishops but was shut out. It was, he says, the end of his career in America.
In 1992, Lynch left for London, where he started working with an Aids counselling group. Treatment has improved since then, but he is conscious that stigma endures. He knows people in Ireland who still hide the cause of their loved one’s death. “There are families I can’t visit even today because it might draw attention,” he says. “The fear is that I’ll be recognised in their locality, and then the secret will be out.’”
It was in London that Lynch met his now husband, fellow Irishman Billy Desmond. In 2006, he became — it’s believed — the first Catholic priest to enter a civil partnership. The couple held their wedding in Co Clare in 2017, two years after the passing of the marriage equality referendum.
“To be able to come back and marry in my own home county was such a gift,” he says. “You know, we left home because we couldn’t stay, but there are people who stayed and have now given us a country to come home to. I really am so proud of Ireland.”
Lynch has remained a prominent activist, meeting such figures as President Mary Robinson and Elton John.
He remains deeply troubled by the church’s position on LGBT issues. As founder of a support group for gay clergy in London, he has met countless priests torn between their jobs and sexuality. “Things might be a bit softer under Pope Francis, but the teaching is still that we’re disordered in our nature and evil in our love. It’s a toxic teaching that does such damage to people. The church still won’t come out and say loud and clear that that teaching is wrong and that gay people are as much loved by God and accepted as straight people.”
Katherine McSharry, acting director of the National Library, describes the donation of Lynch’s archive as an important addition to its collections. Lynch’s papers provide insights into “important questions in our national life, including the nature of faith and organised religion, the taboos around sexuality and individual expression, and the impact the Aids crisis had on the LGBTI+ community”, she says.
There will be an event on Monday to mark the acquisition of the archive, after which it will be available for public consultation. Libraries in the US and UK had also expressed interest, but Lynch is pleased his papers have ended up in Dublin. “What this is doing, as I understand it, is bringing the diaspora home,” he says. “There were so many who left and then couldn’t come back when they were ill; who never saw their families again. All those nameless Irish people in the archive, who can’t be named even today, are in a sense now coming home. It’s about them, not me.”
It is easy enough to see at first glance why LGBTQ people, and those who stand in solidarity with them, look askance at the Bible. After all, the two most cited biblical texts on the subject are the following, from the old purity codes of ancient Israel:
You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination (Lev. 18:22).
If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them (Lev. 20:13).
There they are. There is no way around them; there is no ambiguity in them. They are, moreover, seconded by another verse that occurs in a list of exclusions from the holy people of God:
No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord (Deut. 23:1).
This text apparently concerns those who had willingly become eunuchs in order to serve in foreign courts. For those who want it simple and clear and clean, these texts will serve well. They seem, moreover, to be echoed in this famous passage from the Apostle Paul:
They exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error (Rom. 1:23-27).
Paul’s intention here is not fully clear, but he wants to name the most extreme affront of the Gentiles before the creator God, and Paul takes disordered sexual relations as the ultimate affront. This indictment is not as clear as those in the tradition of Leviticus, but it does serve as an echo of those texts. It is impossible to explain away these texts.
Given these most frequently cited texts (that we may designate as texts of rigor), how may we understand the Bible given a cultural circumstance that is very different from that assumed by and reflected in these old traditions?
Well, start with the awareness that the Bible does not speak with a single voice on any topic. Inspired by God as it is, all sorts of persons have a say in the complexity of Scripture, and we are under mandate to listen, as best we can, to all of its voices.
On the question of gender equity and inclusiveness, consider the following to be set alongside the most frequently cited texts. We may designate these texts as texts of welcome. Thus, the Bible permits very different voices to speak that seem to contradict those texts cited above. Therefore, the prophetic poetry of Isaiah 56:3-8 has been taken to be an exact refutation of the prohibition in Deuteronomy 23:1:
Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off … for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered (Is. 56:3-8).
This text issues a grand welcome to those who have been excluded, so that all are gathered in by this generous gathering God. The temple is for “all peoples,” not just the ones who have kept the purity codes.
Beyond this text, we may notice other texts that are tilted toward the inclusion of all persons without asking about their qualifications, or measuring up the costs that have been articulated by those in control. Jesus issues a welcoming summons to all those who are weary and heavy laden:
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Mt. 11:28-30).
No qualification, no exclusion. Jesus is on the side of those who are “worn out.” They may be “worn out” by being lower-class people who do all the heavy lifting, or it may be those who are “worn out” by the heavy demands of Torah, imposed by those who make the Torah filled with judgment and exclusion.
Since Jesus mentions his “yoke,” he contrasts his simple requirements with the heavy demands that are imposed on the community by teachers of rigor. Jesus’ quarrel is not with the Torah, but with Torah interpretation that had become, in his time, excessively demanding and restrictive. The burden of discipleship to Jesus is easy, contrasted to the more rigorous teaching of some of his contemporaries. Indeed, they had made the Torah, in his time, exhausting, specializing in trivialities while disregarding the neighborly accents of justice, mercy and faithfulness (cf. Mt. 23:23).
A text in Paul (unlike that of Romans 1) echoes a baptismal formula in which all are welcome without distinction:
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ (Gal. 3:28).
No ethnic distinctions, no class distinctions and no gender distinctions. None of that makes any difference “in Christ,” that is, in the church. We are all one, and we all may be one. Paul has become impatient with his friends in the churches in Galatia who have tried to order the church according to the rigors of an exclusionary Torah. In response, he issues a welcome that overrides all the distinctions that they may have preferred to make.
Finally, among the texts I will cite is the remarkable narrative of Acts of the Apostles 10. The Apostle Peter has raised objections to eating food that, according to the purity codes, is unclean; thus, he adheres to the rigor of the priestly codes, not unlike the ones we have seen in Leviticus. His objection, however, is countered by “a voice” that he takes to be the voice of the Lord. Three times that voice came to Peter amid his vigorous objection:
What God has made clean, you must not call profane (Acts 10:15).
The voice contradicts the old purity codes! From this, Peter is able to enter into new associations in the church. He declares:
You yourselves know that it is unlawful for Jews to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean (Acts 10:28).
And from this Peter further deduces:
I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him (v. 34).
This is a remarkable moment in the life of Peter and in the life of the church, for it makes clear that the social ordering governed by Christ is beyond the bounds of the rigors of the old exclusivism.
I take the texts I have cited to be a fair representation of the very different voices that sound in Scripture. It is impossible to harmonize the mandates to exclusion in Leviticus 18:22, 20:13 and Deuteronomy 23:1 with the welcome stance of Isaiah 56, Matthew 11:28-30, Galatians 3:28 and Acts 10.
Other texts might be cited as well, but these are typical and representative. As often happens in Scripture, we are left with texts in deep tension, if not in contradiction, with each other. The work of reading the Bible responsibly is the process of adjudicating these texts that will not be fit together.
The reason the Bible seems to speak “in one voice” concerning matters that pertain to LGBTQ persons is that the loud voices most often cite only one set of texts, to the determined disregard of the texts that offer a counter-position. But our serious reading does not allow such a disregard, so that we must have all of the texts in our purview.
The process of the adjudication of biblical texts that do not readily fit together is the work of interpretation. I have termed it “emancipatory work,” and I will hope to show why this is so. Every reading of the Bible—no exceptions—is an act of interpretation. There are no “innocent” or “objective” readings, no matter how sure and absolute they may sound.
Everyone is engaged in interpretation, so that one must pay attention to how we do interpretation. In what follows, I will identify five things I have learned concerning interpretation, learnings that I hope will be useful as we read the Bible, responsibly, around the crisis of gender identity in our culture.
1. All interpretation filters the text through the interpreter’s life.
All interpretation filters the text through life experience of the interpreter. The matter is inescapable and cannot be avoided. The result, of course, is that with a little effort, one can prove anything in the Bible. It is immensely useful to recognize this filtering process. More specifically, I suggest that we can identify three layers of personhood that likely operate for us in doing interpretation.
First, we read the text according to our vested interests. Sometimes we are aware of our vested interests, sometimes we are not. It is not difficult to see this process at work concerning gender issues in the Bible. Second, beneath our vested interests, we read the Bible through the lens of our fears that are sometimes powerful, even if unacknowledged. Third, at bottom, beneath our vested interests and our fears, I believe we read the Bible through our hurts that we often keep hidden not only from others, but from ourselves as well.
The defining power of our vested interests, our fears and our hurts makes our reading lens seem to us sure and reliable. We pretend that we do not read in this way, but it is useful that we have as much self-critical awareness as possible. Clearly, the matter is urgent for our adjudication of the texts I have cited.
It is not difficult to imagine how a certain set of vested interests, fears and hurts might lead to an embrace of the insistences of texts of rigor that I have cited. Conversely, it is not difficult to see how LGBTQ persons and their allies operate with a different set of filters, and so gravitate to the texts of welcome.
2. Context inescapably looms large in interpretation.
There are no texts without contexts and there are no interpreters without context that positions one to read in a distinct way. Thus, the purity codes of Leviticus reflect a social context in which a community under intense pressure sought to delineate, in a clear way, its membership, purpose and boundaries.
The text from Isaiah 56 has as its context the intense struggle, upon return from exile, to delineate the character and quality of the restored community of Israel. One cannot read Isaiah 56 without reference to the opponents of its position in the more rigorous texts, for example, in Ezekiel. And the texts from Acts and Galatians concern a church coming to terms with the radicality of the graciousness of the Gospel, a radicality rooted in Judaism that had implications for the church’s rich appropriation of its Jewish inheritance.
Each of us, as interpreter, has a specific context. But we can say something quite general about our shared interpretive context. It is evident that Western culture (and our place in it) is at a decisive point wherein we are leaving behind many old, long-established patterns of power and meaning, and we are observing the emergence of new patterns of power and meaning. It is not difficult to see our moment as an instance anticipated by the prophetic poet:
Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? (Is. 43:18-19)
The “old things” among us have long been organized around white male power, with its tacit, strong assumption of heterosexuality, plus a strong accent on American domination. The “new thing” emerging among us is a multiethnic, multicultural, multiracial, multi-gendered culture in which old privileges and positions of power are placed in deep jeopardy.
We can see how our current politico-cultural struggles (down to the local school board) have to do with resisting what is new and protecting and maintaining what is old or, conversely, welcoming what is new with a ready abandonment of what is old.
If this formulation from Isaiah roughly fits our circumstance in Western culture, then we can see that the texts of welcome are appropriate to our “new thing,” while the texts of rigor function as a defense of what is old. In many specific ways our cultural conflicts—and the decisions we must make—reverberate with the big issue of God’s coming newness.
In the rhetoric of Jesus, this new arrival may approximate among us the “coming of the kingdom of God,” except that the coming kingdom is never fully here but is only “at hand,” and we must not overestimate the arrival of newness. It is inescapable that we do our interpretive work in a context that is, in general ways, impacted by and shaped through this struggle for what is old and what is new.
3. Texts do not come at us one at a time
Texts do not come at us one at a time, ad seriatim, but always in clusters through a trajectory of interpretation. Thus, it may be correct to say that our several church “denominations” are, importantly, trajectories of interpretation. Location in such a trajectory is important, both because it imposes restraints upon us, and because it invites bold imagination in the context of the trajectory.
We do not, for the most part, do our interpretation in a vacuum. Rather we are “surrounded by a cloud of [nameable] witnesses” who are present with us as we do our interpretive work (Heb. 12:1).
For now, I worship in a United Methodist congregation, and it is easy enough to see the good impact of the interpretive trajectory of Methodism. Rooted largely in Paul’s witness concerning God’s grace, the specific Methodist dialect, mediated through Pelagius and then Arminius, evokes an accent on the “good works” of the church community in response to God’s goodness.
That tradition, of course, passed through and was shaped by the wise, knowing hands of John Wesley, and we may say that, at present, it reflects the general perspective of the World Council of Churches with its acute accent on social justice. The interpretive work of a member of this congregation is happily and inevitably informed by this lively tradition.
It is not different with other interpretive trajectories that are variously housed in other denominational settings. We are situated in such interpretive trajectories that allow for both innovation and continuity. Each trajectory provides for its members some guardrails for interpretation that we may not run too far afield, but that also is a matter of adjudication—quite often a matter of deeply contested adjudication.
4. We are in a “crisis of the other”
We are, for now, deeply situated in a crisis of the other. We face folk who are quite unlike us, and their presence among us is inescapable. We are no longer able to live our lives in a homogenous community of culture-related “look alikes.” There are, to be sure, many reasons for this new social reality: global trade, easier mobility, electronic communication and mass migrations among them.
We are thus required to come to terms with the “other,” who disturbs our reductionist management of life through sameness. We have a fairly simple choice that can refer to the other as a threat, a rival enemy, a competitor, or we may take the other as a neighbor. The facts on the ground are always complex, but the simple human realities with each other are not so complex.
While the matter is pressing and acute in our time, this is not a new challenge to us. The Bible provides ongoing evidence about the emergency of coming to terms with the other. Thus, the land settlements in the Book of Joshua brought Israel face-to-face with the Canaanites, a confrontation that was mixed and tended toward violence (Judg. 1).
The struggle to maintain the identity and the “purity” of the holy people of God was always a matter of dispute and contention. In the New Testament, the long, hard process of coming to terms with “Gentiles” was a major preoccupation of the early church, and a defining issue among the Apostles. We are able to see in the Book of Acts that over time, the early church reached a readiness to allow non-Jews into the community of faith.
And now among us the continuing arrival of many “new peoples” is an important challenge. There is no doubt that the texts of rigor and the texts of welcome offer different stances in the affirmation or negation of the other. And certainly among the “not like us” folk are LGBTQ persons, who readily violate the old canons of conformity and sameness. Such persons are among those who easily qualify as “other,” but they are no more and no less a challenge than many other “others” among us.
And so the church is always re-deciding about the other, for we know that the “other”—LBGTQ persons among us—are not going to go away. Thus, we are required to come to terms with them. The trajectory of the texts of welcome is that they are to be seen as neighbors who are welcomed to the resources of the community and invited to make contributions to the common wellbeing of the community. By no stretch of any imagination can it be the truth of the Gospel that such “others” as LGBTQ persons are unwelcome in the community.
In that community, there are no second-class citizens. We had to learn that concerning people of color and concerning women. And now, the time has come to face the same gospel reality about LGBTQ persons as others are welcomed as first-class citizens in the community of faithfulness and justice. We learn that the other is not an unacceptable danger and that the other is not required to give up “otherness” in order to belong fully to the community. We in the community of faith, as in the Old and New Testaments, are always called to respond to the other as a neighbor who belongs with “us,” even as “we” belong with and for the “other.”
5. The Gospel is not to be confused with the Bible.
The Gospel is not to be confused with or identified with the Bible. The Bible contains all sorts of voices that are inimical to the good news of God’s love, mercy and justice. Thus, “biblicism” is a dangerous threat to the faith of the church, because it allows into our thinking claims that are contradictory to the news of the Gospel. The Gospel, unlike the Bible, is unambiguous about God’s deep love for all peoples. And where the Bible contradicts that news, as in the texts of rigor, these texts are to be seen as “beyond the pale” of gospel attentiveness.
our interpretation is filtered through our close experience,
our context calls for an embrace of God’s newness,
our interpretive trajectory is bent toward justice and mercy,
our faith calls us to the embrace of the other and
our hope is in the God of the gospel and in no other,
the full acceptance and embrace of LGBTQ persons follows as a clear mandate of the Gospel in our time. Claims to the contrary are contradictions of the truth of the Gospel on all the counts indicated above.
These several learnings about the interpretive process help us grow in faith:
We are warned about the subjectivity of our interpretive inclinations;
we are invited in our context to receive and welcome God’s newness;
we can identify our interpretive trajectory as one bent toward justice and mercy;
we may acknowledge the “other” as a neighbor;
we can trust the gospel in its critical stance concerning the Bible.
All of these angles of interpretation, taken together, authorize a sign for LGBTQ persons: Welcome!
Welcome to the neighborhood! Welcome to the gifts of the community! Welcome to the work of the community! Welcome to the continuing emancipatory work of interpretation!
The Rev. James Martin never pictured himself managing a website aimed at helping resource LGBTQ Catholics.
He never saw himself starring in a documentary about the Roman Catholic Church’s relationship with its LGBTQ members.
He never set out to write or speak on issues related to LGBTQ people and the Catholic Church at all, he said.
And yet a film chronicling Martin’s ministry to LGBTQ Catholics — “Building a Bridge,” which was produced by Oscar-winning filmmaker Martin Scorsese and premiered last year at the Tribeca Film Festival — is streaming now on AMC+.
The documentary release comes as Martin launches an LGBTQ Catholic resource called Outreach, sponsored by America Media, where he is editor at large. Outreach includes a new website and a conference hosted in person for the first time this weekend at Fordham University in New York.
“I really feel like it’s been an invitation from the Holy Spirit to just continue to see where this goes,” Martin said.
The idea for the documentary about Martin’s ministry came to Brooklyn-based filmmaker Evan Mascagni not long after he moved to New York. Mascagni had grown up in a “really Catholic” community in Kentucky — so Catholic, he joked, he didn’t even realize there were other religions — but he had distanced himself from the church in college.
His mom kept sending him posts by “this cool priest she follows on Instagram,” who also was based in New York, he said.
When he finally attended a talk by the priest, who turned out to be Martin, Mascagni said he was “blown away.”
“I’d never felt energy like that in a Catholic church, honestly,” he said.
Mascagni also realized Martin’s story dovetailed with a story that co-director Shannon Post wanted to tell about a friend of hers who was among the 49 people killed when a gunman opened fire at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
Pulse was one of the city’s best-known gay clubs, and the 2016 shooting was the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history at the time.
The response to the shooting — or, rather, the lack of response — by the Catholic Church was one of the reasons Martin said he first felt “emboldened” to write and speak publicly about the church’s relationship with LGBTQ people, he said.
“I was a little disappointed with the church’s official response to the massacre. What struck me at the time was that even in death, this community is largely invisible to the Catholic Church,” he said.
“And so that led to a Facebook video, which led to some talks, which led to this book ‘Building a Bridge,’ which led to this ministry, which just keeps going in new directions.”
They filmed as some of the priest’s talks were canceled over fears of protest by conservative Catholic websites such as Church Militant, which also have organized social media campaigns against him. They kept rolling as he celebrated a Pre-Pride Mass at St. Francis of Assisi Church in New York and met at the Vatican with Pope Francis, who later wrote to Martin about the Outreach conference, previously held online.
“I pray for you to continue in this way, being close, compassionate and with great tenderness,” Francis wrote.
In that time, Martin said he’s become more confident — “primarily because I had that meeting with the pope.”
The priest’s message to the church has become “a little bolder,” he said.
“At the beginning, it was just like, ‘Treat these people with respect.’ Now it’s more, ‘Listen to them, accompany them, advocate for them,’ which is something I might not have said before.”
His message to the LGBTQ community has changed, too, as he’s been challenged by parish groups such as Out at St. Paul, featured in the “Building a Bridge” film. He’s realized the responsibility is on the church to reach out to the LGBTQ community, which has much less power, he said.
He sees the film as part of that work.
“I know that 1,000 times more people will see this movie than ever read my book or come to one of my talks. I understand the power of the media, and so, therefore, I wanted to support them as much as I could,” he said.
Martin said he realized Mascagni and Post were serious about making a documentary about his ministry when they showed up in Dublin, where he was invited to speak to the World Meeting of Families organized by the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life.
Being followed by cameras was “a threat to humility” as a priest, he said. But it came at the same time opponents were bombarding him with messages he was going to hell, so, he joked, “it balanced.”
It isn’t his first brush with fame. Martin has appeared on “The Colbert Report” and “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” as the unofficial chaplain of Colbert Nation. He also has worked with Scorsese on two previous films, appearing as a priest in “The Irishman” and offering insight as a consultant for “Silence.”
Scorsese ended up becoming executive producer of “Building a Bridge” after hearing the documentary was in the works and reaching out to Mascagni and Post.
“If Martin Scorsese is asking you to see a rough cut, you’re gonna work as hard and as fast as you can to get it done,” Mascagni said, laughing.
Alongside Martin, “Building a Bridge” shares the stories of LGBTQ Catholics, their families and their parish ministries as they intersect with the priest and with the church.
It also features Michael Voris, founder of Church Militant. Mascagni said he wanted to show the impact Voris and his followers have had as they’ve opposed Martin’s ministry.
Voris told Religion News Service he thought the documentary was a “fair representation” of himself and Church Militant.
But, he said, “What sticks in my craw about it is that the church’s teaching doesn’t catch any real airtime.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to “homosexual tendencies” as “objectively disordered.” It also calls for LGBTQ people to be “accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.”
The latter is the message Martin emphasizes, and the one the priest said he hopes audiences will take from “Building a Bridge.”
“I just hope that it helps LGBTQ Catholics see that there’s a place for them in their own church — it’s their church, too — and also for Catholic leaders to hear these voices,” Martin said.
“This is where Jesus not only wants us to be, but is. I mean, they are a part of the body of Christ.”
As Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger was head of the Catholic Church from 2005 to 2013. Using archival footage and conversations with contemporary witnesses, this film provides insight into the rise and fall of the German pope.
On May 5, on behalf of Outreach, I asked Pope Francis if he would be willing to respond to a few of the most common questions that I am asked by LGBTQ Catholics and their families.
In my note, written in Spanish, I offered three questions and said that he could be as brief as he wished, especially since he was suffering from a flareup of pain in his knee, and respond in any form that he would like. We proposed this as a mini-interview. Three days later, I received a handwritten note with his answers.
“With respect to your questions,” he wrote, “a very simple response occurs to me.”
We are delighted to share the Holy Father’s answers (along with the text of his letter in the original Spanish and an English translation) with the LGBTQ Catholic community and their friends today.
Outreach: What would you say is the most important thing for LGBT people to know about God?
Pope Francis: God is Father and he does not disown any of his children. And “the style” of God is “closeness, mercy and tenderness.” Along this path you will find God.
Outreach: What would you like LGBT people to know about the church?
Pope Francis: I would like for them to read the book of the Acts of the Apostles. There they will find the image of the living church.
Outreach: What do you say to an LGBT Catholic who has experienced rejection from the church?
Pope Francis: I would have them recognize it not as “the rejection of the church,” but instead of “people in the church.” The church is a mother and calls together all her children. Take for example the parable of those invited to the feast: “the just, the sinners, the rich and the poor, etc.” [Matthew 22:1-15; Luke 14:15-24]. A “selective” church, one of “pure blood,” is not Holy Mother Church, but rather a sect.
Questions in Spanish:
¿Qué diría que es lo más importante que las personas LGBT deben saber de Dios?
¿Qué le gustaría que la gente LGBT supiera sobre la iglesia?
¿Qué le dice a un católico LGBT que ha está experimentado el rechazo de la iglesia?
The text of Pope Francis’ letter in Spanish:
Gracias por tu correo.
Respecto a tus preguntas se me ocurre una respuesta muy sencilla.
Dios es Padre y no reniega de ninguno de sus hijos. Y “el estilo” de Dios es “cercanía, misericordia y ternura”. Por este camino encontrarás a Dios.
Me gustaría que leyeran el libro de los Hechos de los Apóstoles. Allí está la imagen de la Iglesia viviente.
Le haría ver que no es “el rechazo de la Iglesia” sino de “personas de la Iglesia”. La Iglesia es madre y convoca a todos sus hijos. Cfr. la parábola de los invitados a la fiesta: “justos, pecadores, ricos y pobres, etc”. Una Iglesia “selectiva”, una Iglesia de “pura sangre”, no es la Santa Madre Iglesia, sino una secta.
Gracias por todo lo que hacés. Rezo por vos, por favor hacélo por mí.
Que Jesús te bendiga y la Virgen Santa te cuide.
English translation of the letter:
Thank you for your mail.
With respect to your questions, a very simple response occurs to me.
God is Father and he does not disown any of his children. And “the style” of God is “closeness, mercy and tenderness.” In this way (or along this path) you will find God.
I would like for them to read the book of the Acts of the Apostles. There they will find the image of the living church.
I would have them recognize it not as the “rejection of the church,” but instead “of people in the church.” The church is mother and calls together all of her children. Take for example the parable of those invited to the feast: “the just, the sinners, the rich and the poor, etc.” A “selective” church, one of “pure blood,” is not the Holy Mother Church, but rather a sect.
Thank you for everything you do. I pray for you, please do so for me.
May Jesus bless you and may the Holy Virgin guard you.
The makers of the documentary Building a Bridge, which makes its debut on streaming platforms and video on demand on May 3, hope the film will extend the Church’s outreach to LGBTQ Catholics.
“I really want this film to be accessible in any part of the world, for that matter. We’re hoping that we’re going to launch educational opportunities to show in different high schools and colleges and universities and hopefully maybe have it at libraries,” said Evan Mascagni, one of two co-directors of the movie.
“Hopefully, we’ll be able to do a lot of those grassroots community screenings, and follow that up with Q-and-A’s,” Mascagni added. “Hopefully our film can be a resource or a tool for a parish, like someone who wants to start their own LGBTQ ministry in a place like Kentucky,” from which he hails.
“I really hope that the film can reach young people, and people who might not know any other clear path and feel they can joining a community or even start a community like Out in St. Paul,” a gay Catholic ministry featured in Building a Bridge, said Shannon Post, the other co-director, during an April 28 conference call with Catholic News Service.
Building a Bridge is based on the book of the same name by Jesuit Father James Martin, editor at large of America magazine and a consultor to the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication as well as being the author of several books.
Father Martin, who admitted being “uncomfortable” being the focus of the film — “the film should be about the ministry, not me,” he said on the conference call — added, “parishes, too,” as an important point outreach with the movie.
Post had wanted to make a documentary about the shooting rampage at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, which killed 49 people, including a college classmate of hers
“My real target is the LGBTQ Catholic youth, who is wondering if there really is a place in the church for LGBTQ people,” Father Martin said. “They will see this and know that God loves them, and to quote Cardinal (Wilton D.) Gregory (of Washington), know that they are at the heart of the church.”
Post and Mascagni co-directed the 2015 documentary Circle of Poison, about the manufacture and sale in the United States of pesticides banned by the federal government for use in other nations.
Post had wanted to make a documentary about the shooting rampage at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, which killed 49 people, including a college classmate of hers. Mascagni, who had pretty much turned his back on the Catholic Church in which he was brought up, relented to his mother’s importuning that he go to a talk given by “a cool priest” she’d found on Instagram.
The priest was Father Martin. “It was one of his first Building a Bridge talks, Mascagni recalled. He then went to Post and said, “I think there’s a story here.”
They convinced Father Martin to let himself be filmed. When he was invited to speak at the Vatican’s World Conference of Families in 2018 in Dublin, Mascagni and Post told him: “We’re going to Dublin.” “Why are you coming to Dublin?” he remembers asking them. “They said, ‘We’re making a documentary,'” which is when he realized “this wasn’t going to be a fly-by-night operation. This was going to be a serious documentary.”
Three years later, Building a Bridge had its cinematic debut at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. Assessments by many of those featured in the movie had good things to say. Critics of Father Martin’s ministry — among them Michael Voris of Church Militant, who is featured in the documentary — have yet to weigh in.
But Mascagni said: “In the film, we point out all the trolling that happens on Father Martin’s social media. Now that we’ve announced the film on social media, we’re starting to get a tiny part of that.”
In addition to Post and Mascagni’s “impact plan” to take the movie on the road with post-screening question-and-answer sessions and LGBTQ profiles they couldn’t jam into a feature that already was running 90 minutes long — America Media is introducing in May a new website called https://outreach.faith.
Father Martin will coordinate news and resources to be posted on the website, as well as details for a new “Outreach” conference for LGBTQ Catholics in June at Jesuit-run Fordham University.
“Parishes, particularly in the West, are realizing they have to deal with LGBTQ kids — as well as LGBTQ parishioners themselves,” he said. “That trend is not going to change. People are not going to stop coming out.”
Building a Bridge will be available on video on demand May 3, followed by a launch on AMC+ June 21 and broadcast premiere on Sundance TV June 26.
A contemporary Jesus arrives as a young gay man in a modern city with “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision” by Douglas Blanchard. The 24 paintings present a liberating new vision of Jesus’ final days, including Palm Sunday, the Last Supper, and the arrest, trial, crucifixion and resurrection.
“Christ is one of us in my pictures,” says Blanchard. “In His sufferings, I want to show Him as someone who experiences and understands fully what it is like to be an unwelcome outsider.” Blanchard, an art professor and self-proclaimed “very agnostic believer,” used the series to grapple with his own faith struggles as a New Yorker who witnessed the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
High-quality reproductions of Doug Blanchard’s 24 gay Passion paintings are available at: http://douglas-blanchard.fineartamerica.com/ Giclee prints come in many sizes and formats. Greeting cards can be purchased too. Some originals are also available.
Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich is in favour of changing church teaching on homosexuality.
The catechism, which says that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered”, was “not set in stone” and it was permissible to question what it said, he pointed out in an interview in the German glossy weekly Stern.
“Homosexuality is not a sin. LGBTQ people are part of creation and loved by God, and we are called upon to stand up against discrimination [against them]. Whosoever threatens homosexuals and anyone else with hell has understood nothing,” Marx said.
The issue had already been discussed at the Synod on the Family in Rome in 2018, he recalled, “but there was a reluctance to put anything down in writing”. He had already pointed out at the time that homosexual couples “live in an intimate loving relationship that also has a sexual form of expression” and had posed the rhetorical question: “And we want to say that is not worth anything?”
He admitted that there were Catholics who wanted to limit sexuality to reproduction “but what do they say to couples who cannot have children?” the cardinal asked.
Marx admitted that “a few years ago” he had blessed a homosexual couple in Los Angeles who had come up to him after Mass. But it had not been a marriage, he pointed out. “We cannot offer the sacrament of marriage”, he emphasised.
It would not be easy to find consensus on the homosexuality issue in the universal Church, he said. “Africa and the Orthodox Churches partly have a very different take. Nothing is achieved if this issue leads to a split but at the same time we must not stand still.”
Finding consensus on the issue is meanwhile already running into difficulties in the German archdiocese of Paderborn.
The archdiocesan priests’ council has sent a letter of protest to Archbishop Hans-Josef Becker. Last Christmas Becker sent the more than one thousand priests in his archdiocese a book by emeritus Curia Cardinal Paul Cordes on the 60th anniversary of his priesthood. It now turns out that in one chapter Cordes says that homosexuality is “profoundly against God’s will”.
Enclosed in Cordes’ book was a letter by Archbishop Becker announcing that he had founded a work group to handle “queer-sensitive pastoral work” in the archdiocese.
The archdiocese explained on 31 March that Cordes, who was from the archdiocese of Paderborn, had dedicated his book to the archdiocese’s priests. “Opinions [on homosexuality] differ and these differences must be taken into consideration”, the archdiocesan statement said. A factual exchange was “crucial”.
In a way, my sexuality has always been tied to my faith. My first romantic inclinations occurred during mass. I was in the pew, holding my parents’ hands and sneaking glances at the boy on the altar, holding a candle. Even though I was aware that my mind should have been on the liturgy, and not concerned with if he had smiled at me that Sunday or not, somewhere in my hormone-flushed pubescent brain, I found security in our weekly non-verbal dialogues.
I was a girl, and he was a boy. I was Catholic. He was Catholic. The possibilities that could sprout from any furthering of our tweenage flirtations were all fruitful. Everyone, even God, would be pleased.
The simplicity that comes with heterosexuality in the context of the Catholic church is something that I envied and coveted for so long. For straight people, it seemed just like a matter of falling in love. You fell in love, got engaged to tell the world you were in love, got married to seal that love and then had children who were the product of that love. Love was the vital driving force for how people moved from single individuals to a cleaved pair and how they became “one flesh.”
But if that was the case, then why was it that a year after things with the altar boy had ended, when I had started to find romance in girls as well as boys, love didn’t feel like enough?
My first crush on a girl wrecked me in a myriad of ways. Not only was I wholly unprepared for the displacement from the normative narrative of “girl meet boy” that my society and religion had fed me for so long, but I also experienced it all in a strange new land.
My family had just moved from Lagos, Nigeria to Georgia a year ago. The newness of my same-sex attraction was amplified by the novelty of being in America. Although, there were more methods for dealing with the culture shock than with my budding sexuality. My aunts and cousins who lived near us were a frequent Nigerian assuage to the barrage of Americanness we met everywhere we went. Plates of jollof rice and bowls of pepper soup supplemented the chicken and waffles we got for school lunch. Hearing my mom and aunts speak Igbo took the edge off the American-ish accent that was becoming a prominent part of my code switching toolbox.
Then there was church. The universality of the Catholic Church made it easy for it to be a place where to some degree, I could already fit in. I already knew all the rituals and traditions. I knew when to sit, when to stand, what words to say and what to do when I said them. This universality is one of the things that I love about being Catholic: a steady relief knowing wherever I go, I can enter a Catholic church and be instantly united to those around me through our shared belief in God.
But having my faith as a source of joy and comfort also made it more difficult for me to reconcile my burgeoning attraction to girls. When it came to liking girls, I didn’t have that same feeling of security I had with boys. I had received a silent education on same-sex relationships. I knew that when I heard statements like “marriage is between man and women,” there was another lesson hidden in the negative: Marriage is not between man and man, or woman and women or any other configuration of people. From the start, I had absorbed the notion that there was something wrong about feelings toward girls. Like many others who have questioned themselves, I turned to the internet to externalize those internalized ideas. My search for answers covered a wide scope: from amateur responses on Catholic Answers to pastoral documents written by priests.
What I found were harsh truths surrounding issues like celibacy and adoption policies. The one that has stuck with me till this day is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say on homosexuality, which includes the following:
“Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that ‘homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.’ They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.”
What struck my 15 year old heart was the phrase “intrinsically disordered.” Though I am still not completely versed in the Catholic reading of the phrase, I know it means being out of the natural order and the basic inherent inclinations of human beings, such as the desire to be virtuous. Reading “intrinsically disordered” for the first time, I was less concerned with its theological definition, and more with the idea that something in me was just inherently corrupt.
This newfound self-perception was the beginning of many nights of falling asleep with tears drying on my face. I couldn’t understand how something that felt so much like a wonderful thing, felt so much like love 一 that so renowned attribute of Christianity 一 could be so immoral. It didn’t make sense that something that felt so natural for me was actually unnatural. I couldn’t comprehend it, but at least I could control it. Or so I thought.
What followed my reckoning with my “intrinsic disorderedness” was a series of scrupulous rules. I tried to avoid everything related to queerness. I didn’t allow myself access to the proliferating reservoir of queer representation in media. I chastised myself for taking delight in queer things, so I began to censure my world so I couldn’t take part in them anymore. But this didn’t stop the hurt that I was feeling. In fact, it only grew the wound that had formed from carrying negative perceptions of myself in secret.
I can’t sufficiently explain the process of coming out of that point in my life within the space of this essay, but it involved sharing my secret with my family, the people who love me the most, and lessening the pressure of trying to figure out everything on my own. Coming out to them and letting them into my struggle with sexuality wasn’t easy, but now I can see that it was better than enduring that struggle on my own.
Moving my journey with sexuality out of my personal realm and into a communal one was how I developed my current relationship between my queerness and my faith. Before, I was too preoccupied with the things that I felt I might be denied by being queer and Catholic 一 the marriage and children the hopeless romantic and caretaker in me so desperately desired 一 that I couldn’t see the ways in which I had been afforded new options as well, and most importantly, new passions.
My queerness has become an epistemological vantage point to look at my faith in a new light. Although I was always encouraged by my family to ask questions about the Church, there was little to question because I viewed most things as simply the way things were. Discovering my own queerness raised new points of interrogation. I started to ask things like, why haven’t I heard of a patron saint of queer people? What are other vocational options outside of marriage and priesthood? How does the Church care for queer people? Most significantly, what are the factors that make so many queer people feel like God doesn’t love them and what can we do to change that?
The final question has been critical to my queer Catholic story. I was fortunate enough to never feel like God didn’t love me, even when I thought the worst about myself. My foundational Catholic education, inside and outside catechism classes, taught me that God’s love was unconditional. Throughout those long, emotional nights where I stared up at the green flashing light on the smoke detector, in the dark of my room and battled the conflicting desires within me, I never doubted that God still loved me. I was angry, sad and frustrated at God, but I was never unsure of His love for me.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church also says queer people should be “accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives…” Even in the same document that brought me such pessimistic views of myself and my future, there were declarations that my life was still to be valued. In fact, I was still called to “fulfill God’s will” in my life. God still has a role for me to carry out on this earth, one that is special and particular to me.
This is the part of the catechism that I choose to focus on now. I believe that God’s will, in having me seriously contend with the intersection of faith and sexuality, is calling me to be an advocate for those who find themselves at that intersection. I believe the cycles of pain and joy I’ve undergone, and still go through, in the process of formulating and reformulating my identities, has given me an arsenal of experiences that I can put forth to help others like me. Though I’m still figuring out how to do that, I’m trying to take small steps to answer my call to queer Christian advocacy. I believe joining queer groups on campus is a step. Joining Christian groups is one step. Joining queer Christian groups is another step. My essay is a step. By the grace of God, I’m going to keep stepping in this direction. Hopefully further down the line, being queer and Catholic won’t feel like a curse born from contradiction, but a blessing in its own right.
Catherine Aniezue (22C) is originally from Lagos, Nigeria, but now lives in Evans, Georgia.
Parishioners worshipping at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Harlem are greeted by a framed portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. — a Baptist minister named after a rebellious 16th century German priest excommunicated from the Catholic Church.
The Rev. Bryan Massingale, who sometimes preaches at St. Charles, pursues his ministry in ways that echo both Martin Luthers.
Like King, Massingale decries the scourge of racial inequality in the United States. As a professor at Fordham University, he teaches African American religious approaches to ethics.
Like the German Martin Luther, Massingale is often at odds with official Catholic teaching — he supports the ordination of women and making celibacy optional for Catholic clergy. And, as a gay man, he vocally disagrees with the church’s doctrine on same-sex relations, instead advocating for full inclusion of LGBTQ Catholics within the church.
The Vatican holds that gays and lesbians should be treated with dignity and respect, but that gay sex is “intrinsically disordered” and sinful.
In his homily on a recent Sunday, Massingale – who became public about being gay in 2019 — envisioned a world “where the dignity of every person is respected and protected, where everyone is loved.”
But the message of equality and tolerance is one “that is resisted even within our own faith household,” he added. “Preach!” a worshiper shouted in response.
Massingale was born in 1957 in Milwaukee. His mother was a school secretary and his father a factory worker whose family migrated from Mississippi to escape racial segregation.
But even in Wisconsin, racism was common. Massingale said his father couldn’t work as a carpenter because of a color bar preventing African Americans from joining the carpenters’ union.
The Massingales also experienced racism when they moved to Milwaukee’s outskirts and ventured to a predominately white parish.
“This would not be a very comfortable parish for you to be a part of,” he recalled the parish priest saying. Thereafter, the family commuted to a predominantly Black Catholic church.
Massingale recalled another incident, as a newly ordained priest, after celebrating his first Mass at a predominantly white church.
“The first parishioner to greet me at the door said to me: ‘Father, you being here is the worst mistake the archbishop could have made. People will never accept you.‘”
Massingale says he considered leaving the Catholic Church, but decided he was needed.
“I’m not going to let the church’s racism rob me of my relationship with God,” he said. “I see it as my mission to make the church what it says it is: more universal and the institution that I believe Jesus wants it to be.”
For Massingale, racism within the U.S. Catholic Church is a reason for the exodus of some Black Catholics; he says the church is not doing enough to tackle racism within its ranks and in broader society.
Nearly half of Black U.S. adults who were raised Catholic no longer identify as such, with many becoming Protestants, according to a 2021 survey by the Pew Research Center. About 6% of Black U.S. adults identify as Catholic and close to 80% believe opposing racism is essential to their faith, the survey found.
The U.S. Catholic Church has had a checkered history with race. Some of its institutions, such as Georgetown University, were involved in the slave trade, and it has struggled to recruit African American priests.
Conversely, Catholic schools were among the first to desegregate and some government officials who opposed racial integration were excommunicated.
In 2018, U.S. bishops issued a pastoral letter decrying “the persistence of the evil of racism,” but Massingale was disappointed.
“The phrase ‘white nationalism’ is not stated in that document; it doesn’t talk about the Black Lives Matter movement,” he said. “The problem with the church’s teachings on racism is that they are written in a way that is calculated not to disturb white people.”
At Fordham, a Jesuit university, Massingale teaches a class on homosexuality and Christian ethics, using biblical texts to challenge church teaching on same-sex relations. He said he came to terms with his own sexuality at 22, upon reflecting on the book of Isaiah.
“I realized that no matter what the church said, God loved me and accepted me as a Black gay man,” he said.
His ordination in 1983 came in the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic that disproportionately affected gay men and Black Americans. Among his first funerals as a priest was that of a gay man whose family wanted no mention of his sexuality or the disease.
“They should have been able to turn to their church in their time of grief,” Massingale said. “Yet they couldn’t because that stigma existed in great measure because of how many ministers were speaking about homosexuality and AIDS as being a punishment for sin.”
Pope Francis has called for compassionate pastoral care for LGBTQ Catholics. However, he has described homosexuality among the clergy as worrisome, and Vatican law remains clear: same-sex unions cannot be blessed within the church. Some dioceses have fired openly LGBTQ employees.
Massingale has a different vision of the church: one where Catholics enjoy the same privileges regardless of sexual orientation.
“I think that one can express one’s sexuality in a way that is responsible, committed, life giving and an experience of joy,” he said.
Massingale has received recognition for his advocacy from like-minded organizations such as FutureChurch, which says priests should be allowed to marry and women should have more leadership roles within the church.
“He is one of the most prophetic, compelling, inspiring, transforming leaders in the Catholic Church,” said Deborah Rose-Milavec, the organization’s co-director. “When he speaks, you know very deep truth is being spoken.”
Along with his many admirers, Massingale has some vehement critics, such as the conservative Catholic news outlet Church Militant, which depicts his LGBTQ advocacy as sinful.
At Fordham, Massingale is well-respected by colleagues, and was honored by the university with a prestigious endowed chair. To the extent he has any critics among the Fordham faculty, they tend to keep their misgivings out of the public sphere.
He says he receives many messages of hope and support, but becoming public about his sexuality has come at a cost.
“I have lost some priest friends who find it difficult to be too closely associated with me because if they’re friends with me, ‘what will people say about them?’” he said.
Massingale remains optimistic about gradual change in the Catholic Church because of Pope Francis and recent signals from bishops in Europe who expressed a desire for changes, including blessing same-sex unions.
“My dream wedding would be either two men or two women standing before the church; marrying each other as an act of faith and I can be there as the official witness to say: “Yes, this is of God,” he said after a recent class at Fordham. “If they were Black, that would be wonderful.”